Tom Boonen

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) is the big favourite to win the Tour of Flanders for a third consecutive time on Easter Sunday, but is also the rider everyone else wants to beat in what is the biggest one-day classic of the cycling season.

Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Philippe Gilbert (Francaise des Jeux), Nick Nuyens (Cofidis) and even Boonen?s team mate Paolo Bettini, would all love to be the first to Ninove after battling over the 18 climbs and 259km of twisting roads in the heart of Flanders.

If anyone manages to beat Boonen, their win will be all the more more prestigious because they will have stopped him from becoming the only rider since Italy?s Fiorenzo Magni in 1951 to win three consecutive editions of the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Boonen has made it clear he is determined to win for a third time, and has showed he has the form to pull off treble after two impressive wins at the recent Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Prijs Harelbeke. He beat Nico Eckhout (Chocolade Jacques) and Stuart O?Grady (CSC) in a bunch sprint to win Dwars door Vlaanderen and then edged-out Fabian Cancellara in a close sprint in E3 Prijs Harelbeke from a decisive breakaway group.

Boonen is under huge pressure to make history in Belgium, but will have the support of millions of spectators and patriotic Flemish cycling fans who will pack the sides of the road on each of the climbs.

Boonen is the bookmakers favourite but knows he faces serious competition. Filippo Pozzato beat Boonen with a late attack to win Het Volk just over a month ago, and has a strong Liquigas team that includes Luca Paolini, the experienced Roberto Petito and Manuel Quinziato.

Cancellara seems to have recovered after Tirreno-Adriatico and is determined to out power Boonen, as he did in Paris-Roubaix last year. He will have the support of Karsten Kroon and Stuart O?Grady, who himself looks set for one of his best ever classics campaign after an intense but impressive early-season racing programme.

Lampre duo Daniele Bennati and Alessandro Ballan both showed their form in the Three Days of De Panne after a disappointing Milan-San Remo. Ballan has the technical and tactical skills to win alone, while Bennati could stun the Bonnen by beating him a sprint, if he makes it over the hills. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) could also cause a surprise. He is set to ride Flanders despite his fragile back, and showed he can handle the cobbles and the climbs by taking his third consecutive win at the tough Brabantse Pijl last Sunday.

As expected Alessandro Petacchi will not ride the Tour of Flanders and so Erik Zabel will lead the Milram team. Robbie McEwen will also be missing after back problems and a stomach bug, and so his Predictor team will have to hope for a miracle from Leif Hoste to stop being humiliated by their big Belgian rivals, Quickstep.

Of course Boonen will be backed up by his Quick Step team that includes former two-time Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem, Steven De Jongh, Kevin Hulsmans and Gert Steegmans. Paolo Bettini did not ride the Three Days of Panne, preferring to train at home in Tuscany, but showed he has recovered from his fractured rib problem with a strong ride at the Brabantse Pijl on Sunday. Bettini has publicly stated he will ride for Boonen but will be eagerly waiting for a chance to win the one ?monumental? that is still missing from him long palmares.

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